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Middlebury recreation center site still up in air

MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury committee evaluating plans for new recreation and municipal office facilities has set Dec. 17 as the date on which it will recommend a preferred rec. center site to the town selectboard.
Until recently, the Middlebury Town Office & Recreation Facilities Steering Committee has been focusing on a single site for the proposed new, 11,507-square-foot recreation center: A portion of public recreation lands located near Mary Hogan Elementary School.
But with the Mary Hogan Elementary (ID-4) board still awaiting answers on a series of questions — including a traffic study —about the rec. center project, a second potential site entered the conversation last month: A 2.4-acre parcel off Creek Road owned by UD-3, the district that includes Middlebury Union middle and high schools.
The UD-3 school board on Tuesday evening agreed to keep the Creek Road parcel in contention for the new recreation center (see related story, Page 14A). Meanwhile, the steering committee on Tuesday morning agreed to add the Creek Road parcel into its deliberations, expected to culminate in a recommendation to the selectboard later this month. The selectboard will decide whether to accept the committee’s suggestion as it organizes a March 4, 2014, bond referendum for the new recreation center and town office projects.
But it was clear on Tuesday that steering committee members have yet to build a consensus on whether to recommend Creek Road or Mary Hogan Drive as the best site for the new recreation center.
Committee members are clearly divided on several issues. Among them is whether the town would be able to satisfactorily address, in the short-term, the additional parking and traffic circulation problems that a new recreation facility could create at neighboring Mary Hogan Elementary School if the facility is built at the recreation park site.
Current plans do not provide for dedicated on-site parking spaces for a rec. center located off Mary Hogan Drive; project organizers are in the short-term depending on neighboring lots at the Memorial Sports Center, Mary Hogan School and county courthouse to satisfy demands. Organizers contend there’s no money in the budget for additional parking and have suggested a “Phase II” project in the future (estimated at $350,000 to $450,000) to supply additional spaces while improving the existing Mary Hogan lot and traffic circulation scheme.
Mary Hogan School directors have strongly advocated for parking and traffic concerns to be remedied within the context of the current project, as opposed to waiting for a “Phase II.”
Nancy Malcolm, chairwoman of the steering committee, asked fellow committee member (and ID-4 Chairwoman) Ruth Hardy if she and her colleagues could support the recreation center off Mary Hogan Drive, given the previous feedback it has given on parking and traffic concerns.
“The ID-4 board has not taken a vote or a position on it; they have raised questions and concerns and they have requested information and they have not been provided with that information,” Hardy replied. “I cannot speak for the whole board to say whether they are in favor of it or not, but we have been working in good faith with the town to try to work it out, and the town has pretty much moved on to another site, apparently. I guess I am quite frustrated as the chair of the ID-4 board with the process that suddenly we have this other site that’s being considered and the ID-4 board has not been provided with information it has requested.”
That information, she said, includes a traffic study to determine potential impacts that center-related vehicles could have on school traffic flow and parking. The ID-4 has also been seeking information on potential impacts on pedestrian safety and access to the facility.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said she has approached the traffic consulting firm of RSG to do the proposed study. She noted RSG had given an initial quote of around $8,200 to perform the study, an amount that had not been budgeted. The town is working with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission on ways to provide RSG with information and potentially grant resources to streamline and/or underwrite some of the costs of the study.
“Until my board gets the information that it requested and votes on it, I can’t speak for the board,” Hardy said. “The board had concerns; those concerns were clearly laid out; we requested additional information. I had been working with the chair of the selectboard and town manager and others to try to get that data … It hasn’t happened yet.”
Hardy said she is not sure when her board will get the information it needs to take a vote on the proposed Mary Hogan Drive site. The ID-4 board has oversight over the recreation park property, which is maintained by the town.
“We were following a process laid out by the steering committee and the selectboard, and suddenly that process took a right-hand turn and so I’ve been left wondering ‘What’s going on?’” Hardy said.
SWITCH FOCUS?
With the Mary Hogan Drive site still steeped in questions and with time ticking away to a planned Town Meeting Day vote, some officials suggested it might be prudent to now switch focus to the Creek Road site.
“I had understood from this meeting that the recreation park site, without parking being addressed in Phase I, was a non-starter,” steering committee member David Donahue said. “If that’s not the case, or if the ID-4 board is willing to step up with the funds to address the parking, that would matter to me. But absent that kind of information, I’m not sure what more we need to compare the two sites.”
Bread Loaf project architect Chris Huston, who was at the meeting to discuss preliminary building cost estimates, weighed in.
“If the UD-3 site is more appealing for a number of reasons, including parking, child safety and so on, then why would the community spend the $8,000 to $10,000 to get a traffic study done if the direction is headed elsewhere?” Huston said.
“My understanding is the ID-4 board said this parking (situation) had to be rectified and added to; we all clearly heard that,” Malcolm said. “If (solving ID-4 parking/traffic concerns) is a $450,000 consideration, is it feasible to consider (that site)?”
Hardy reiterated her board had yet to take a vote on the issue, pending more information.
Committee members reviewed a list of “pros” and “cons” for both the Creek Road and Mary Hogan Drive parcels (see chart), and came up with some additional concerns.
Steering committee member John Barstow noted the Creek Road site doesn’t feature a home for Addison Central Teens. The teen center is currently based in the lower level of the municipal building and was initially pegged to move to the warming hut building at the Middlebury recreation park. The teen center would therefore be isolated if the recreation building is not built off Mary Hogan Drive and instead built off Creek Road, Barstow noted.
The warming hut “would appear to be an orphan” absent an adjacent recreation center, Barstow said.
He also voiced concern that the Creek Road parcel is “not as pedestrian-friendly” and centrally located as the Mary Hogan Drive site.
“There are a lot of users of this gym, day cares for instance, that get to walk here and get a gym facility,” Barstow said of the current downtown location. “They could probably walk to Mary Hogan, that’s not a stretch, but (Creek Road) is not pedestrian-friendly for some users that I am aware of, of this site. Pedestrian accessibility, I believe, is important. It’s a trend, in terms of less vehicular.”
Some members suggested a public transportation stop for a Creek Road recreation center, and said the town has received money to improve that road and install a sidewalk next year.
MORE LIKE A HUB
Steering Committee member Natalie Peters said the Mary Hogan drive site might be more appropriate for a rec. center, given the playground and other recreation facilities and supervisors in that area. She said the Creek Road parcel seems more geared toward activities for older children and adults, and added she believed seniors would feel less comfortable at a Creek Road center than at one off Mary Hogan Drive.
“It seems more like a hub for community and especially younger children at the Mary Hogan site,” Peters said.
Hardy agreed.
“This (Creek Road) site feels a lot more like a high school facility, like a second high school gym, even though we would be trying to program a variety of things the recreation department does,” Hardy said. “It’s less centrally located and less broadly accessible to the community.”
Hardy added she believes the town should first devise a recreation master plan, and then plan the facilities to accommodate those uses.
“We have put the cart before the horse,” she said.
Others touted the Creek Road as the better option.
Committee member Greg Boglioli said a rec. center affiliation with UD-3 could lead to more successful Middlebury Recreation Department programming.
“This opens us up … to being able to get the other players in UD-3 to get on board with the Middlebury rec. programs,” Boglioli said. UD-3 includes the communities of Middlebury, Cornwall, Bridport, Salisbury, Shoreham, Ripton and Weybridge. The UD-3 board would like to see a locker room addition (funded by UD-3) to the recreation center.
Malcolm agreed.
“(Middlebury) is a regional center,” Malcolm said. “We are a regional facility, yet Middlebury taxpayers have been the ones who have footed the bill. This gives us an opportunity for expansion and to bring into the discussion some of the outlying towns that do use our facilities, and use them rather heavily. It is a great opportunity to open up the financing piece of it.”
Donahue suggested the town collect some statistics on how people currently get to the municipal gym (drive, versus walk), and who uses the Legion fields. Donahue said the fields are used by children of all ages.
“To me, it’s not a high school facility; it’s a town facility,” Donahue said.
Some steering committee members on Tuesday said they were ready to recommend a site.
“Let’s put the building to bed,” Boglioli said. “Our job is to come up with something for the voters. If the voters don’t like this building, they’ll vote the project down, and we’re right back here where we are … Let’s take the building, put it to a vote, and be done with it.”
But the panel elected to defer that decision until Dec. 17, hoping to have more information on both sites. If a decision is made on that date, and it turns out to be in favor of the Creek Road site, the UD-3 board is prepared to discuss the project at its Dec. 18 meeting. If the choice is to stick with the Mary Hogan drive site, the selectboard will continue to try to resolve ID-4 board concerns.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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